Creating magic with natural botanical prints

Connecting with techniques from centuries ago can set the imagination and spirit soaring.

Scarves by Suzanne Dekel (photo credit: BECKY KESTENBAUM)
Scarves by Suzanne Dekel
(photo credit: BECKY KESTENBAUM)
Suzanne Dekel wakes up in her third-floor apartment in Shoham. After the usual morning preparations – getting dressed, eating breakfast, taking her son to school – she strolls through the woods near her home searching for natural materials she can use to dye a scarf. If she spots something beautiful, a leaf with an appealing shape perhaps, or a tree that produces a vibrant color, she asks the plant permission to take a piece with her. Back in her studio, she carefully transforms cuts of raw silk into a visual record of the day’s finds.
While this is the rhythm of her life now, it wasn’t always so. Dekel, who made aliya from the Netherlands some two decades ago, worked as a musician and music teacher (she’s a trained classical guitarist) and then at a hi-tech company before discovering the world of natural dyes and eco printing.
I spoke with the artist about authentic social media marketing, ensuring that natural dyeing is environmentally friendly, and “A Crown for a Queen,” a photographic and textual documentation of the challenges faced by religious career women who choose to cover their hair.
Let’s start at the beginning. How did you discover natural dyeing and eco printing?
I was living my life. I had kids. I was working a lot, trying to do a couple of new things, but nothing really serious... and then I got divorced. When I got divorced, I needed money and stability, two things that music cannot give you. So I went to work in hi-tech, which I did for four years. At the end of the four years, I remarried and had another baby. Then my oldest daughter got very sick. So here I found myself with a five-month-old, a child who is admitted to a hospital – and a full-time job. It was a crazy time and I didn’t like my job that much anymore. I was not getting a lot of support, to say the least. So I quit. I really felt that I had to choose my kids.
Of course, that novelty wore off quite fast and I had a lot of time on my hands. I said, okay, now I’m going to be home for a while. I will do something that I really like doing. I started to make toys for my son. With Waldorf toys, you have these play silks. So I ordered and dyed the silk; I really loved the silk. To dye with what I had in my kitchen cabinets was very satisfying. When everything was so completely nuts and so stressful and so worrisome, I had this activity where I could just be. Like for two hours I’m dyeing silk and there’s nothing else in the room.
When I do something, I have a tendency to dive head in, so within a month I found everything there was to know about natural dyes and how to dye fabrics, and I started ordering silk and I started to make play silks. That’s what it started with. That was three years ago. When you are in that world of learning how to dye silk, you come across eco printing very fast. It’s something that is very much alive right now.
What do you love most about natural dyeing?
In the Netherlands it was clear to me where my place in the chain was because I was born into it, but when you come to a new country and you have to establish yourself, especially when you get divorced and you have to start all over again, you try to establish your own place along the lines of the people who have been living here forever. It helped me redefine who I am and who I want to be.
Now that the newness has worn off and I’m more skilled, I see that it frees up space in my head and I gravitated to a more spiritual way of working. In the beginning I would order everything online from abroad in these huge buying binges. Now I read about what I have here locally and then I go and search for it. So I walk in the woods. I take long hikes to find my materials, and that’s very nice because it forces me to slow down.
I think all that I’m doing right now is really healing from a very difficult and complicated period in my life and it calms me, makes me whole. It keeps me sane and it focuses me on learning new things and looking at beautiful things and creating beautiful things. I’m not making a scarf; I’m making something of beauty, because there was so much ugliness going on.
Of course, I cannot just make beautiful things and keep them in my house. I’m very much an anti- hoarder. Everything has to go, so I starting selling. I go once a week to sell my stuff at the First Station in Jerusalem and I made a website. If this was just a luxurious hobby, I don’t think it would work out.
How do you market your business? In particular, your social media posts are very poetic. What inspires them?
This is why I’m in such a good zone at the moment. I feel that all my talents are meeting a need and a platform where I can express those needs. I realized that the more honest I am, the more it hits a nerve with other people. It’s often when I’m taking my morning walk that all of a sudden something makes sense. I have an inner click and I know what I want to post. I can see something and it has words to it. Nature is helping me to make sense of a lot of stuff, and the words that I write come from the heart.
I have Instagram and Facebook and they connect very well together, so people know what I do and word gets out. I have an overview of how I want my feed to look. If you scroll the whole feed, you can see that there are waves of color. That’s my strategy. Not because I think it will make such a wonderful Instagram feed, but just because that’s what I want to see.
I work with periods of color. Now, in February, the dyer’s chamomile will start blooming, so I know I will get more yellow in the feed. In the summer, it’s too hot to start boiling fabrics – it doesn’t feel right – so I work with an indigo vat. So there’s a lot of blue in the feed. I start taking pictures and it means something to me, all this renewal in nature, that things start blooming again after periods of dormancy. It goes according to the seasons.
Take me through the process of making a scarf.
In short, it’s scoring, mordanting, dyeing and printing – those are the steps that I need to take. A scarf takes about two days to make, but I make them in batches because I try to be resourceful with energy and water.
First, I have to source my material. Israel does not have a natural silk industry, so I have to import it from China and India. You need to score it, which means you need to remove any barriers that are on the fabric. Often the fabric gets insulated with materials that will prevent mold and insects damaging it, and you have to clean it in a special way to remove any leftovers.
Then you have to mordant it, which means you have to add metal salts such as iron or tannins, the same materials they use in leather making, and it opens the fabric for the natural dyes.
Then I dye with natural dyes, which is anything made from bugs or leaves or hardwood. Each dye has its own way of preparing it. Some have to be soaked. Some have to be boiled. Some need additives. You need to play with the pH level. There’s a lot of knowledge and learning that goes into making natural dyes.
Then I pick my fresh leaves. I place them on the fabric and roll it up really tightly. It has to either steam or boil for at least three hours. Then I have to wash it, dry it and iron it again, and then I have my final product.
So the final product is a surprise every time?
Yes! Opening up a bundle is like you’re opening a present. You never know what you’re going to get. Sometimes you get big disappointments and sometimes they’re so beautiful you don’t want to sell them at all.
What are your favorite plants to work with?
I love pecan trees. This summer, I made scarves with them and they were just so gorgeous, each and every one of them. What I like about the pecan is that you can use it for so many things. We can use the nuts and the husks, and the leaves give this golden print.
Then there’s eucalyptus, which is the classic way to go for eco printing. Because their prints are extremely lightfast and washfast, I can use them safely without having to fear that something will happen to the color.
I also like the shapes. When I look at what I want to use, I look at the shape of the leaf – if it talks to me, if it’s something I feel connected to. Not every leaf will print. There’s a select amount of trees you can use that will have pigments to work with in the first place. That’s something that comes with time and knowledge and trying out.
You also teach natural dyeing. Tell me about your workshops.
Well, it’s a way, first of all, for me to make a living – that’s very simple – also to meet new people. It seems very romantic, taking a walk in the woods, working on a scarf, but the downside is that it’s very lonely. I don’t get a lot of interaction on a daily basis. So it’s a social thing and there is a sense of satisfaction. You see the joy that your students have. I know that I experience joy when I open my bundle. To see that same magic in the eyes of others, like “Whoa, look at this, I made something beautiful,” that’s a wonderful feeling. It’s really lots of fun.
When I teach, I have an opportunity to teach about sustainable ways of using this art. Don’t get confused. Just because it’s natural doesn’t make it environmentally friendly per se, unless you pay real attention. I try my best to use as little water as possible and to recycle water and any materials that I need to tie up the bundles. Also, if everyone would start eco printing, we would have no trees left. You have to know where to cut the leaves. I cannot just go and rip off leaves and branches. It will kill the trees. You have to know what you’re doing. You have to use only a little bit, be respectful. I make sure I don’t go to the same trees over and over and over again.
What inspired “A Crown for a Queen”?
When I was looking for a job, people would assume all kinds of things because I cover my hair. Like I’m not so smart or I’m submissive or I’m not a professional or something. I think I was fed up. I was like, okay, I want to do a series where I can show kick-ass professional frum ladies who cover their hair and wear it with pride. It’s like a crown. But it turned out to be a series which was actually very honest and it talked about the downsides of it. We don’t always do this because we love it so much or we like the way it looks. But it’s something that you do nonetheless and you make the best out of it.
It was so empowering to see that everyone was coming together to get this off the ground because we all felt that it was something that needed to be done. Also for the hair covering and also for the scarves and also to show that ladies who cover their hair can be professionals and super moms. It was amazing to be able to pull that off; I will do another one.
How is creating a scarf similar to playing music?
There is a special feeling when something is working, when I know it’s good. I know when I make a good scarf – not just pretty, but good, something with roots. The same thing would happen when I would play music and I knew that what I was doing was quality stuff. There’s a special feeling in my soul for this, and I guess that once you know it, you have to repeat it. You’re always looking for that feeling of being completely in the zone and doing exactly what you are meant to do and what you are good at doing. It’s one of the biggest rushes that I know.
It’s all about creating, about this feeling that you are being your best self, that all your qualities come together and you are giving your gifts to others. That’s what I really love. I’ve had people with tears in their eyes just looking at my stuff. Not all the time, but sometimes. And to know that I can provoke this kind of reaction with my work, I don’t need anything else. That, for me, is the biggest reward.
This interview is condensed from the original.